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How A Newspaper Is Helping Save India's Endangered Languages

After a bill by Indian parliament sidelined local languages in India, one digital newspaper took up the task of helping preserve them.

​A team member of 'The Chenab Times' reporting in India

A team member of 'The Chenab Times' reporting in India

Tarushi Aswani

NEW DELHI — Tucked in a corner of a house in the Chenab valley in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of the country is the office of The Chenab Times, a multimedia news website that aims to produce news in two main local languages of Jammu’s Doda region – Bhaderwahi and Sarazi.

The team uploads videos on YouTube that wrap up daily news, first in Urdu and then in Bhaderwahi and Sarazi. The news portal also gives space to writers from across the country to write for their op-ed section.

In Jan. 2017, 23-year-old Anzer Ayoob, the editor-in-chief of the news website, started this portal that would run news in Urdu and English. However, after the parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill – that made Hindi, Kashmiri and Dogri the official languages of the Union Territory – in September 2020, locals in the valley felt side-lined and ignored.

Many expressed dismay over the exclusion of Gojri, Pahadi and Punjabi and how the Bill coerced speakers to align with Hindi in a region where it is barely spoken. This also led to apprehensions over the marginalization of Urdu, which is the lingua franca in Pakistan. Language and politics are delicate subjects in the area. Both China and Pakistan lay claim to parts of Kashmir.

The civil society groups have expressed severe concerns over the Union government’s decision to digitize materials of Kashmiri language in Devnagri script, more associated with Hindi, instead of the Nastaliq script, pointing to serious apprehensions about the devaluation of the Persian script.


While the promotion of Devnagri does not only imply demonetization of Nastaliq script, but empowering Devnagri over the Nastaliq script stirs questions about the endangerment of several languages like Gojri, Pahari, Poshtu, Balti, Sheena, Urdu, that are written in the Persian script. Languages of concern for the Chenab valley, Bhaderwahi and Sarazi also use the Persian script.

To counter the impact of the Union government’s Bill on official languages, Ayoob decided to produce news in Bhaderwahi and Sarazi.

Local identities

As per the 2011 census, the Chenab region houses a population of more than 900,000 people, and there are only 46,000 speakers of the Sarazi language and approximately 50,000 speakers for Bhaderwahi left in the region.

Both the Sarazi and Bhaderwahi languages are spoken in the Doda district. On one side of Chenab, where Doda city is located, people speak Sarazi, whereas on the other side, where Bhaderwah is located, the entire region speaks Bhaderwahi.

The strength of our news lies in the local language that we use.

Ayoob’s efforts to run news in these languages aims to bind the speakers in a better relationship with their local languages. At a time when English education is being preferred worldwide, he said that the responsibility to save and promote a language lies on its speakers.

“Initially, our team worked on the promotion of tourist places in the Chenab region via photos and videography. Our region lacks proper road connectivity. Most of the tourist places are not connected by roads and remain unexplored. We focus on highlighting these places,” Ayoob said.

Now that the online production of news content in the two languages is in full swing, Ayoob also dreams of establishing a print version of The Chenab Times.

The team focuses on hyper-local reporting to highlight developmental issues such as water crisis, road connectivity, electricity, etc. They visit the affected village or area, meet the people, and record their ordeals on camera. But their job does not end at data collection and reportage. They also convey the problems to the concerned department and request them to look into the issues at the earliest.

“The strength of our news lies in the local language that we use; it is a way we are reclaiming our identity,” said Ayoob. For him, the website was a recourse to preserve the fading languages that, he said, are as precious as heritage passed on generationally.

A team member of 'The Chenab Times' reporting on developmental issues in the Chenab valley, India\u200b

A team member of 'The Chenab Times' reporting on developmental issues in the Chenab valley, India

naik_farid/Banjarr

Money matters

The team has 15 members who report, document, film and photograph through the peaks and valleys of the Chenab region. While their efforts to provide greater localized access to news is marked by appreciation and applause, it lacks the financial support to sail through the process of news production. The news portal is only able to generate revenue through advertisements, and hence, is only able to pay its staff as money comes in.

After The Chenab Times completed a year, the impact of their initiative was covered by various local dailies like Kashmir Uzma and Daily Udaan. It was also nominated for the "Best News Portal" award by the Pahari Core Committee, which is an amalgamation of more than 15 literary groups.

Each click, share and like is not just a numerical tally of the audience.

Apart from financial challenges, the massive power cuts in the region dampens their zeal to work. Despite being a hub of hydroelectric power projects, the Chenab region has many villages that have low access to electricity. “Not just today, our region has been facing these [power cuts] for decades. Even in winter, our areas remain without electricity for months. To deal with this issue, we use our mobile phones for video editing and managing websites on such days,” Ayoob said, as he described the struggle of running a news portal in the Chenab valley.

While the website’s audience has grown since it started, the funding mainly comes from clicks and their YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers. Their Facebook page has over 153,000 followers and boasts of 25,000 visitors every month on their news website.

Apart from financial and logistical woes, the team said, severe neglect from Jammu-based politicians keeps the inhabitants of the Chenab valley away from development. Ayoob further said, “Former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is from the Chenab region, did a lot of work during his tenure but didn’t explore its full potential.”

For these volunteers who sometimes are the sole sponsors of their stories, each click, share and like is not just a numerical tally of the audience, but it is also a motivation that pushes them to go the extra mile for news in the rugged region of mountains and meadows.

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Ideas

Joshimath, The Sinking Indian City Has Also Become A Hotbed Of Government Censorship

The Indian authorities' decision to hide factual reports on the land subsidence in Joshimath only furthers a sense of paranoia.

Photo of people standing next to a cracked road in Joshimath, India

Cracked road in Joshimath

@IndianCongressO via Twitter
Rohan Banerjee*

MUMBAI — Midway through the movie Don’t Look Up (2021), the outspoken PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is bundled into a car, a bag over her head. The White House, we are told, wants her “off the grid”. She is taken to a warehouse – the sort of place where CIA and FBI agents seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in Hollywood movies – and charged with violating national security secrets.

The Hobson’s choice offered to her is to either face prosecution or suspend “all public media appearances and incendiary language relating to Comet Dibiasky”, an interstellar object on a collision course with earth. Exasperated, she acquiesces to the gag order.

Don’t Look Upis a satirical take on the collective apathy towards climate change; only, the slow burn of fossil fuel is replaced by the more imminent threat of a comet crashing into our planet. As a couple of scientists try to warn humanity about its potential extinction, they discover a media, an administration, and indeed, a society that is not just unwilling to face the truth but would even deny it.

This premise and the caricatured characters border on the farcical, with plot devices designed to produce absurd scenarios that would be inconceivable in the real world we inhabit. After all, would any government dealing with a natural disaster, issue an edict prohibiting researchers and scientists from talking about the event? Surely not. Right?

On January 11, the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), one of the centers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), issued a preliminary report on the land subsidence issue occurring in Joshimath, the mountainside city in the Himalayas.

The word ‘subsidence’ entered the public lexicon at the turn of the year as disturbing images of cracked roads and tilted buildings began to emanate from Joshimath.

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